Jamaica: Risk, reward and incentives. Crime pays and getting away with murder is easy.

Some things about life in Jamaica strike me as blindingly obvious. One of them is the constant disconnection between what people say they want and what people encourage to happen. Economics is supposed to be about scarcity, but that is really another way of saying that it is about choice and how that is influenced. One of the main drivers for choosing is what is the risk and what is the reward of the choice. Normal, sane people go for things that tend to have more reward than risk. Policy makers should set up options for their societies that load rewards on things that they want to happen, and load risks onto things they wish to discourage. This is where Jamaica–the land of the exceptional–comes to the fore. We have a society that has been loaded with either perverse incentives or incentives that seem to run counter to what we say we want.

I wont try to cover the whole country and the things that appear to be wrong, but will focus on one thing that people say they dislike very much–crime, especially, murder. Several analysts over the years have noted that over the past decade (since 2004) ‘under 40 per cent of homicides were cleared up and, of that figure, only about an eighth of the accused managed to make it to trial. When crunched further, the data show that, in real terms, a mere five per cent of persons accused of murder get convicted‘. When the odds are so stacked in favour of getting away with murder, who really believes that the country has a hope in Hades of seeing murder rates fall dramatically? If you want to drag your hands in the dirt more, realise that those numbers overstate the ‘success’, not least because it includes people who are accused but then found to not have done the crimes.

But, murder is not something that people choose to do simply because they can get away with it. It’s a product of a society that does tolerates high levels of violence against the person. “Let me beat you!” is one of those stock phrases Jamaicans use, as much as “Please” and “Thanks”. We are civil in our words and brutal in our deeds. I remember seeing a lady with an infant who looked to be about six months old, hitting the child softly but constantly saying repeatedly: “See, Mummy beat you. You bad girl.” No shrill tone that denoted anger, but a clear, repeated message. I asked her what she thought she was doing. A little shocked, judging by her expression, she replied “I’m teaching her not to be naughty.” So, for that early age, and I know it starts earlier, we beat to teach what we call ‘discipline’. “If you wont hear, you must feel,” is another of our stock phrases for getting children to understand what the consequences will be of disobedience.

So, why do we act horrified when we hear of the series of aggravated beatings that a littered amongst all our communities, often with the instrument of choice having graduated from a hand or a belt, to a machete. We also, often see that what started in early life as an uneven contest–an adult versus a child–has continued. So, we see many assaults and worse by men on women and children. We built the house and now we live in it. We pushed holes into the roof and ceilings and are surprised that rain is falling on our heads while we try to eat our dinner.

The crime picture and its base cause seem clear to me. People will try to say that ‘social conditions’ or ‘economic conditions’ are the root causes. I have to admit that they may have some connection, but it’s hard to see what. My grandmothers lived in harsher social and economic conditions but were not surrounded by a world of killings. Now, I am in danger of undoing my own analysis. My grandmothers were very much of the “must feel’ generations of old. So, something else must have happened for that base to exist and murder not take hold.

One thing is the availability of a much more potent way of making people feel–the gun. For that, we have to thank our enlightened leaders who allowed them in freely so that they could help in the struggle to keep or take political power. (We can see how other Caribbean nations have started to catch up with Jamaica once their tolerance for firearms increased.) Like weeds in a garden that is not tended, they take over and choke all the flowers that we had planted, and do so quickly. But, that does not explain the way that we have seen men brutalize women and children so that they heard through feeling the cuff of the hand or the chop.

Another factor is that we no longer have effective justice or justice systems. This is one of the areas where incentives seem to be clear. Our formal systems for dealing with wrongdoers is a shambles. The adage of ‘soon come, never reach’ has taken hold of our court systems. The backlog of cases is far too long. Cases take too long to come to court and then take too long to be resolved. In this instance, I do not care about the outcome of the ‘Cuban light bulb scandal’ case, but five years to get to that, is like the old joke about how many whoever it takes to change a light bulb. I do not like to put profanity on my blog, but that is a real WTF situation. The now-celebrated case of the murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams is another one mired in delays. That other adage about ‘justice delayed is justice denied‘ also comes into play.

It’s another plank taken away from a ship that began to flounder and began to sink fast. That failing system ate away at people’s confidence in their institutions. When that happens, people tend towards other systems that seem to work better, whether organized on an individual basis or in some collective way. It makes less sense to report crimes, because the system does not seem to care about solving them. That quickly translates into why bother noting it at all, just keep it away from me. That’s part of the gated community trend and its three monkey thinking: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It also finds expression in the rise of gangs and gang-controlled areas: a form of justice will be administered and swiftly; it is also brutal. However, in its warped way, it is about maintaining order, which is what we say we want.

Our failed justice system is aided by a police force that lost its way in terms of its real mission to serve and protect. It turned inwards and became self-serving and did not protect the people but itself. Corruption is as much about perception as it is about deeds. When people believe that a person or group is corrupt they had better work hard to disprove the notion, if not, then it will hold and be hard to shift. The police are believed to be many things–corrupt and brutal are among the repeated characteristics. The number of civilians killed by police defy reasonable belief as things that happen ‘in the line of duty’. Police shaking people down for money or tampering with evidence or just lying are accusations that either have no base in truth and are rumours spread by a nation of mean and ungrateful people or it’s really happening and few want to or can do anything about it.

I know of few countries that did what the Republic of Georgia did in 2005. Its president, Mikhail Saakashvili, made his government sack all police (about 30,000) and customs personnel while repositioning the country. The country had no police force for three months and crime did not go up, suggesting that police were part of the security problem. It was part of Georgia’s move from a failed state to a stable and fast-growing economy. 

I’ve not used the word incentive much but it should be clear where it has been applied and what it has tended to produce.

I’m getting in the habit of commenting on things that appear to deal with the bad incentives by add ‘change the risk-reward calculus’. Recent case of corrupt police officers getting sentenced are clear instances of this starting to occur. We can say the same about the recent murder case involving a musician. Unless human nature has made some magic self-transformation, our survival instincts push us toward doing things that are more likely to preserve our lives than lose them, even if that means killing others. On that point, I will flag my latest piece of knowledge. Humans rank second in the world of killers, after mosquitoes. We try to even things up with our nearest rival by killing them but they are more efficient at the task than we are, and have adapted to exploit our weaknesses much better than we have adapted to exploit theirs. Eventually, they are more likely to wipe us out than the reverse.

That’s also much like what we see happening in Jamaica. The wrong doers have been much better at exploiting our weaknesses than we have at exploiting theirs. We have let them get the clear lead, and now it’s a case of seeing whether or not we will capitulate and give up the race or try to claw our way back into the lead.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “Jamaica: Risk, reward and incentives. Crime pays and getting away with murder is easy.”

  1. This piece is a mirror image of what we in the Caribbean face today. This is our reality in Trinidad and Tobago just as it is in Jamaica and I dare say the other islands too. With that in mind, may I reblog on my blog, please?


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